“Things change, Kundun,” –Teacher to the young dalai lama in the movie Kundun

Nineteen years ago the magazine Muscle Media 2000 put out a list called the Ten Worst Foods for Body Builders. At least three foods on the list would certainly top a Ten Best Foods for Body Builders list of today. In fact, these three foods are all on my top ten list of best foods for body composition, which I will post next week—stay tuned!

I agree that the other foods on the list should be avoided by anyone interested in building muscle, getting lean, or achieving optimal athletic performance. Let’s review the list, consider the author’s reason for panning each food, and see if nearly 20 years of research changes things.

#1: Fish
“Fish that you should generally avoid are herring, mackerel, orange roughy, salmon, and catfish as all have more than five grams of fat per serving,” writes the author who is clearly concerned that all fat is bad for body builders. However, we know that not all fat is equal when it comes to diet and body composition. Hydrogenated trans fats and polyunsaturated fats affect the body in radically different ways than the omega-3 fats that are found in high quantities in the fish mentioned.

For example, dietary fat is necessary to make the androgen hormones such as testosterone, and it makes up the membrane of every cell in the body. Eating large amounts of the omega-3 fats makes the cells healthier and more sensitive to the hormone insulin, thereby supporting body composition and raising metabolism. Another effect of diets high in the fats that come from fatty fish is less inflammation because omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, whereas most other fats cause inflammation, especially when they are eaten in conjunction with large amounts of carbohydrates.

Take Away: The omega-3 fats are the healthiest fats and should make up a large portion of the fat you eat. Eating a variety of fatty fish is a good place to get your omega-3s, however, you do want to be careful about toxins and heavy metals like mercury in larger fish like tuna. Tuna actually made it onto Muscle Media’s list of Ten Best Foods for Body Builders, but the toxicity in tuna takes it to the top of my list of bad foods for everyone. Opt for salmon, mackerel, white fish, sardines, and anchovies instead.

#2: Avocados
Body builders feared avocados for their high fat and high calorie content. However, the authors of a 2011 review of foods to treat obesity included the avocado in their report because of its “tremendous antioxidant capacity” and ability to completely “eradicate chronic inflammation related to a high fat diet.” Adding avocados to the diets of obese mice resulted in fat loss and better insulin sensitivity.

Take Away: Just like the omega-3 fats in fish, the fat in avocado is an excellent addition to your diet assuming you limit your high carbohydrate foods and manage insulin effectively. Don’t be scared of avocados or “smart” fats if you’re a body builder, athlete, or individual trying to get lean.

#3: Iceberg Lettuce 
Although I would not agree that this is one of the worst foods, it’s true that iceberg lettuce has almost no nutritional value. Providing little in the way of vitamins or minerals, you’d do well to pass up iceberg lettuce in favor of darker greens such as romaine lettuce and arugula, or the nutrient-rich powerhouses like kale, mustard greens, chard, and bok choy.

Take Away: Opt for the greens mentioned above as well as other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli that supply compounds that enhance the elimination of excess estrogen from the body. The removal of chemical estrogenic toxins and natural estrogen is critical for body builders and the general population in the quest for higher tissue-building hormones and lower body fat.

#4: Tofu

“While tofu is made from soybeans and is an excellent source of protein, it is way too high in fat for a bodybuilder’s food arsenal, containing approximately 9 grams of fat per 3.5 oz. serving,” writes the Muscle Media author. I won’t argue with tofu being on the “worst” list, but not because of the fat content.

The tofu of today is typically from genetically modified soy that is highly processed, contaminated with pesticides, and acid washed. This combination along with the fact that soy contains plant estrogens, and the inconclusive results from studies of soy intake and breast and prostate cancer risk, make it a food you want to avoid.

Take Away:
  Choose organic meats (including red), wild meats, and fish instead of tofu for the best protein source. A word about red meat—it’s not on the “worst” list, but that’s only because the author assumed everyone already knows about “the downfalls” of red meat. It’s true that the conventional grain-fed red meat of today should be avoided, but pastured organic beef is a must have for body builders, athletes, and anyone wanting to put on muscle fast. It provides high omega-3 content, conjugated linoleic acid that fights cancer, creatine, glutathione, and the amino acid powerhouse, leucine.

#5: White Bread
White wheat that makes white bread has been nicknamed “white death,” so there’s no argument here. It’s on the “worst” list due to it being nutritionally empty, but my reasons go a little further. Wheat, bread, and grains all raise blood sugar levels quickly, resulting in a quick spike in insulin that leads to belly fat gain and inflammation. None of these are good things for body builders, athletes, or folks wanting to lose fat.

In addition, an element of the dietary fat fear that underlies the reasons for including many of the foods on Muscle Media’s “worst” list is that saturated fat leads to high cholesterol and heart disease. Today’s research shows high cholesterol and heart disease are most affected by high carbohydrate intake in conjunction with high saturated fat intake. Low-carb, high-fat diets with large amounts of saturated fat don’t produce high cholesterol or heart disease. Rather, research shows they can decrease cardiovascular inflammation and lower heart disease risk.

Take Away: Avoid white bread, grains, and bread in general. If you are sensitive to the gluten found in many grains, eliminate these foods completely from your diet. High-carb, high-fat diets put you at risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. That same high-fat diet with restricted carbs has been shown to do the opposite.

 #6: Cheese
Muscle Media dislikes cheese because of its fat and sodium content. It’s true that cheese should generally be avoided, or at least eaten in small quantities, but more because it is highly acidic. In addition, the protein is primarily from casein, which is a poor quality protein compared to whey.

Take Away: There are a lot of foods that provide higher quality protein, better fat, more nutrients, and don’t have the drawbacks of cheese. Assuming you aren’t intolerant to cheese, eating organic, raw cheese from goat, sheep, or buffalo in small quantities may not be a problem, especially if you get your omega-3 fats and have your overall fat intake balanced.

#7: Deli Meats
Yep, deli meats that are processed, filled with growth hormones and chemicals, and preserved with nitrates should top the list of worst foods for everyone. Not only are they packed with toxins, high in unhealthy fats, but eating processed meats regularly has been linked to risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer risk.

Take Away: Avoid all processed meats, whether they come from a deli or in a package. Organic, pasture-raised sliced meat commonly purchased at a deli is a convenient, safe way to get high-quality protein.

#8: Microwave Popcorn
“Even though popcorn itself is considered a great snack for body builders, the way it’s prepared is crucial,” writes the Muscle Media author, adding that popcorn is good because it’s high in complex carbs and fiber. The advice only gets worse: “If you must have butter taste (on your popcorn), use Pam Butter Flavored Spray and some Molly McButter.”

The corn of today is typically genetically modified, and corn is the second most common food sensitivity after gluten. You should never eat processed foods like Molly McButter (it contains trans-fat and other chemicals), and Pam is made from canola and corn oil, both of which should be avoided.

Take Away: Avoid corn and processed, chemical food sprays. Never eat movie popcorn, and if you must have popcorn on occasion, opt for organic corn and eat it plain, or with real butter or olive oil.

#9: Nuts
The fat in nuts is the reason for including it on the “worst” list. But 20 years of research shows that supplementing the diet with nuts can significantly improve body composition. They not only increase the metabolic response to eating, but can increase feelings of satiety and blunt hunger. Plus, nuts are high in antioxidants, protein, fiber, and healthy fats, making them a great food for body builders, athletes, and folks trying to lose fat.

Take Away: Eating a serving of nuts a day in conjunction with a high-protein, low-carb diet can produce significant fat loss and help you feel satisfied.

#10: Granola
Granola makes Muscle Media’s list because it is high in fat, contains coconut, and often includes other nuts. However, the author likes the oats in granola and included it in the magazine’s Ten Best Foods For Body Builders list.

Coconut oil and the fats from nuts are “smart” fats that should be included in your diet along with the omega-3 fats for optimal body composition. Oats, on the other hand, should be avoided if you are gluten intolerant because, although oats don’t contain gluten, they are often cross-contaminated due to processing in proximity to wheat. They also contain avenin that causes similar sensitivity problems as gluten. In addition, oats contain phytic acid that binds to minerals to prevent their absorption. Finally, oats are grain, and for optimal body composition, they should be avoided.

Take Away: Avoid granola, cereal, and oats for best body composition results. Coconut and nuts are great when eaten regularly but in moderation.